Casablanca: Cultural Impact

“Casablanca” is easily one of the most influential movies in American film history. To begin with, at a crucial moment in American history, “Casablanca” impacted our perception of intervention in the Second World War, and of intervention in foreign affairs in general. “Casablanca” helped to start a trend which continued in such events as the Gulf War, where America intervenes in difficult world situations. No longer could America stand idly by and permit undemocratic evil to overtake the earth. This was the message of Casablanca in late 1942. It was time for America to flex its muscles and enter the fight. America was to become the reticent guardian of the whole world.

The film opened at New York City's Hollywood Theater on Thanksgiving Day, 1942. This was just 18 days after the Allied Forces had landed at Casablanca. Moreover, Casablanca's general release date was January 23, 1943, which was in the very midst of the Casablanca conference of the Allied Powers. In other words, the release schedule of Casablanca happened to be very timely, to say the least.

To explain further, the zeitgeist in America at that time, related to the War, was centered around the idea of personal commitment. In a political sense, this feeling corresponded to America's commitment to the global political scene. We can say that Casablanca tapped into the mood of the times when released, because the film was about the making of personal commitments as the entrance of politics into individual lives occurred.

In 1942-1943, Americans were toying with the same issues of personal commitment about the War that the characters in Casablanca confront. One of Humphrey Bogart's famous lines in the film was “I bet they're asleep in New York–I bet they're asleep all over America.” This line received a lot of attention in 1943. Casablanca served an important function in waking up Americans, not just to the advantages of international intervention at that time, but to an entire new era in which, as Robert B. Ray notes, intervention would become the accepted norm.

Due to Casablanca's timely embrace of the War issues, the film achieved victory in its own war: the Academy Awards war. Out of its eight nominations, Casablanca won Best Picture (the main competition was Lubitsch's The More the Merrier), best screenplay and best director. This is evidence of how expertly the film played off of the times and was, in fact, instrumental in transforming the time. Humphrey Bogart lost out to Paul Lukas's performance in Watch for the Best Actor award, but of course it is now Bogart's performance that is remembered. In 1977, when the American Film Institute asked its members to select the ten Best American films of all time, Casablanca finished third behind Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane.

In retrospect, it is easy to forget that Casablanca created a new kind of hero, in Bogart's influential role. Bogart's Rick was Hollywood's first rebel hero. He comes from outside the normal world, and he is a liberating figure. This role is the most innovative thing about Casablanca. Rick certainly became one of the most-loved heroes in the history of the movies, because he was the first of his kind. Considering the enduring popularity of this character, Rick was not only the prototype for a new kind of Hollywood hero, but also the prototype for a new kind of American.

The combination of the performances of Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” should be the very definition of film chemistry. Ingrid Bergman helped create the film's mystique. James Card writes, “At age twelve I was deeply impressed by Ingrid Bergman, walking towards an airplane on a misty runway, the tears on her face just glimpsed beneath the large hat that shadowed her face.”

Originally Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan and Dennis Morgan were signed on to play the respective Bergman, Bogart and Henried roles. This alternate cast looks like a disaster from today's vantage point. The world would have to have been a noticeably different place today without Bogart as Rick in Casablanca, and the rest of Casablanca's cast.

But what was Casablanca's general effect in the 1960s Or, what did Casablanca have to do with the 1960s Casablanca is a fundamental American film. In light of recent history it is important for us to see how the counter-culture movement (which used films like Casablanca as road maps), although attacking the American establishment, was primarily a revolt tied to long-held American beliefs.

The characters of Casablanca, like the young Americans of the 1960s who spear-headed the protest movement, are “real Americans” lost in a unfriendly locale, fighting to open up a new reality. The enduring appeal of Casablanca, through the 1960s and up to the present, rests on the melding of various thematic elements: colorful, eccentric characters involved in a risque love story; an exotic, foreign locale; melodramatic political incidents; tough, cynical and humorous repartee; sentimental, idealistic interludes (virtual speeches); heroic, selfless commitment to a cause, etc.

In these thematic elements we can see many connections to what would become the American counter-culture movement, including the emphasis on individualism, suggestions of a sexual awakening, the escape offered by drug usage (exotic places), the drama of 1960s politics, a new kind of humor that was critical and smart about American traditions, the simplification of idealism, and the tuning out of the old world. From this perspective, Casablanca's renewed popularity in the 1960s becomes logical. The line “I bet they're asleep all over America” obviously took on a new meaning to the counter-culture movement.

Although the film is as racist, sexist, and patriotic as almost any film of the 1940s, it was nevertheless embraced by college students in the 1960s as an expression of their nonconformity. Casablanca's message to the youth of the 1960s was that there was a secret stamp of approval for rebelliousness, hidden somewhere in American history. In reality, however, this message of Casablanca turned on itself for the youth of the 1960s.

The language of Casablanca became a part of American language, now having a permanent influence. Many of the great lines in the film still garner applause from audiences. The toughness combined with sentimentality that is the crux of Casablanca's many great lines, even today informs the oratories of many top American politicians, including recent presidents.

For instance, the famous, famous line “Play it again, Sam”–just in this small grouping of words, we can see a microcosm of what Casablanca is all about. The film is a meeting point between America's search for machismo and America's “kinder, gentler,” softness that always looks fondly to the past.

And what can we say of Bogart's final appeal to Ingrid Bergman: “We'll always have Paris. The problems of three people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Sentimental words beyond belief, yet delivered with the stiffest of upper lips. Another favorite line was “Round up the usual suspects.” Another was “Here's looking at you, kid.” The song “As Time Goes By” also achieved a special place in American culture. The longevity of the film's popularity can also be traced to its words. People have gone to see “Casablanca” again and again, and will continue to do so, specifically to hear their favorite lines.

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  2. Luna Envy says:

    just a note… that quote “play it again Sam” (one of the most commonly misquoted) is incorrect. no one at any point actually says those words. they say “play it Sam” and “play it once Sam” but contrary to popular belief, no one ever actually says “play it again Sam”. check if you don't believe me! 😛

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